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8.571270 - SCHUMANN, R.: Piano Concerto, Op. 54 / GRIEG, E.: Piano Concerto, Op. 16 (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 1)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
As a young man Schumann had diffuse interests, but in music his ambitions centred chiefly on the piano. After leaving school he had enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig, moving the following year to Heidelberg, which seemed more to his social and musical taste. Here he continued to try his hand as a composer, and it was in these years that he attempted the composition of his first piano concertos, which were never finished. His teacher and future reluctant father-in-law Friedrich Wieck, however, promised Schumann’s widowed mother that her son could become one of the foremost pianists of the day, if he were to apply himself assiduously to technical practice and to a kind of theoretical study that seemed foreign to the young man’s temperament, a course of action that he attempted to pursue, before abandoning performance for composition. It was only after his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, an alliance that had been the subject of protracted litigation on the part of her father, that he seemed to find that degree of security and encouragement that enabled him to give serious attention to larger instrumental forms. Much of his music in the 1830s had been for the piano, often in those smaller forms of which he was such a master. While 1840 itself was a year of song, with many compositions in this form, the encouragement of his wife, by now established as a pianist, led, much to her delight, to Schumann’s First Symphony, followed by his Overture, Scherzo and Finale that he was to describe later as a Symphonette. In the spring of 1841 he completed a Fantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra, which Clara was able to play in rehearsal with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig in August, shortly before the birth of the first of the Schumann children. The Fantasie found no favour with publishers, and it was not until 1845 that Schumann added an Intermezzo and a Finale to make of it a complete concerto, a work that Clara Schumann immediately took into her repertoire, playing it on New Year’s Day 1846 in a Gewandhaus concert.
The concerto opens with a flourish from the pianist, followed by the principal theme, entering like a lamb, but to assume greater proportions as the work progresses. Clara Schumann perceptively remarked, of the first movement, that the piano part is skilfully interwoven with the orchestra, so that it is impossible to think of one without the other. The Allegro affettuoso is in traditional sonata form, but handled with considerable freedom, particularly in the central development. The Intermezzo must remind us of Schumann’s mastery of those shorter forms which he had used to such effect in his earlier piano music, narrating a curious story, while the Finale, originally conceived as a separate Concerto Rondo, has all the excitement that we expect of a virtuoso concerto, and a clear thematic connection with the first movement. The concerto remained an important part of Clara Schumann’s concert repertoire and she continued to include it in her concerts in the difficult years that followed Schumann’s mental illness and his death in 1856, including performances on eighteen occasions between 1864 and 1879.
Edvard GRIEG (1843–1907)
Edvard Grieg, the greatest of Norwegian composers, was descended on his mother’s side from a Norwegian provincial governor who had adopted the name of Hagerup from his adoptive father, the Bishop of Trondheim. On his father’s side he was of Scottish ancestry. His great-grandfather, Alexander Greig, had left Scotland after the battle of Culloden, when the cause of the Stuart claimants to the thrones of England and Scotland was finally destroyed by the English army under its royal Hanoverian general. In Norway the Greigs became Griegs and during the nineteenth century established themselves comfortably in their new country, Edvard Grieg’s father and grandfather both having served as British consuls in Bergen.
The Grieg household provided a musical background for a child. Musicians visited the family and these visitors included the distinguished violinist Ole Bull, who persuaded the Griegs to send their son Edvard to Leipzig Conservatory, an institution he entered at the age of fifteen, there to benefit from the demands of a traditional German musical education. In Leipzig, however, not everything was to Grieg’s liking. He objected to the dryness of normal piano instruction, based on the work of Czerny and Clementi, and was able to change to a teacher who was able to instil in him a love of Schumann. He attended concerts by the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra that Mendelssohn had once directed and was present when Clara Schumann, the composer’s widow, played her husband’s piano concerto there, and at performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. At the same time he was able to meet other musicians, including Arthur Sullivan.
After a short period at home again in Norway, where he was unable to obtain a state pension, Grieg moved to Denmark. The capital, Copenhagen, was a cultural centre for both countries, and here he had considerable encouragement from Niels Gade. The principal influence that was to change his life came from a meeting with Rikard Nordraak, a young Norwegian, who fired him with ambition to seek inspiration in the folk-music of Norway. Nordraak was to die tragically young, at the age of 24. Grieg, however, continued to prepare himself for employment in Norway, first of all taking a long holiday which led him to Rome, where he met the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. It was a concert arranged by Grieg in Christiania (Oslo) and given by him with his cousin and future wife Nina Hagerup and the violinist Wilhelmine Norman-Neruda that secured him a position in Norway and provided support for the projected Norwegian Academy of Music, established in the following year, 1867.
The period that followed saw Grieg’s struggle, with the backing of Liszt and the support of his friend, the dramatist and theatre-director Bjørnson, to establish some sort of national musical movement in Norway.
He divided his time between concert activities, on tour as conductor and pianist, composition, and periods spent in enjoyment of the Norwegian countryside. His ambitions for Norwegian music were very largely realised. At home he came to occupy a position of honour, and his collaboration with Bjørnson and Ibsen further identified him with the culture of his homeland. He died in 1907, as he was about to undertake one more concert tour. For years he had suffered from lung trouble, the result of an illness in his student days. It was this that was to bring about his death at the age of 64.
Grieg was undoubtedly influenced in his Piano Concerto in A minor by Schumann’s concerto, which he had first heard as a student in Leipzig. He wrote his own work in 1868, during a holiday spent in Denmark, a concerto that owes something also to Liszt, who had seen the work in manuscript and to the composer’s astonishment played it through faultlessly at sight. Grieg revised the concerto several times, and rejected at least one of Liszt’s suggestions on orchestration, the use of trumpets for the second theme in the first movement, eventually allotted to cellos, although he remained grateful to Liszt for his encouragement. In many ways the work marks a turning towards Norway as a direct source of inspiration and away from German or Danish influence.
The concerto opens with a drum roll, leading to the entry of the solo piano descending the keyboard, followed by a theme given first to the woodwind, repeated by the piano, which later takes up the second theme, suggested by the cellos. There is a development section that develops relatively little and in the final section a rhapsodic cadenza, followed by a brief coda. The second movement shifts to the key of D flat major, to be heard as the middle notes of the chord of A major. The effect of the change is one of relief from the tumultuous activity that had gone before, orchestra and soloist proposing different melodies, but with no sense of conflict. The finale is dominated by a Norwegian dance rhythm, that of the halling, but has time for the kind of rhapsodic piano-writing that has made the concerto one of the most successful and popular in the romantic repertoire.
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